Motorized three-wheelers are gaining popularity as an alternative to motorcycles. Even Harley is making them.
MILWAUKEE - As their knees give out and it gets harder to balance a motorcycle weighing hundreds of pounds, more aging bikers are turning to three-wheelers.
What's more, trikes have become popular with people who don't have balance issues but appreciate them for what they are -- a practical and sometimes trendsetting alternative to a standard two-wheeler.
"It's a cool thing now because it's different," said Tom Dorcey, an events coordinator for Rob's Performance Motorsports, a Can-Am Spyder trike dealership in Johnson Creek, Wis.
Sleek and sporty, the Spyder is a three-wheeler from the makers of Ski-Doo snowmobiles that kind of looks like a snowmobile on wheels.
Dorcey, from Janesville, Wis., became a trike rider after he and his wife were in a motorcycle crash 11 years ago. A car pulled in front of them, and they hit it at 50 mph.
"After that, we never really felt comfortable on two wheels," Dorcey said.
Several manufacturers offer conversion kits that turn two-wheelers into trikes. A Wisconsin dealership, Kool Trikes, does conversions and is launching its own manufacturing system.
The company is working with a West Coast firm to sell hundreds of trikes through a network of about 125 dealerships.
"It's coming together," said Kool Trikes owner Randy Butler, adding that his business partner wants to sell 2,000 trikes a year within three years.
Butler raced cars and enjoyed motorcycles, yet balance issues mostly kept him off two wheels. As a trike rider, even if he has a vertigo spell that forces him to pull off the road, he won't tip over.
Modern three-wheelers gained credibility in 2008 when Harley-Davidson Inc. signed a deal with Lehman Trikes USA for Lehman to build Harley's Tri-Glide motorcycles.
Now the Tri-Glides are manufactured at Harley's plant in York, Pa.
Lehman, based in Spearfish, S.D., suspended operations this spring after company founder John Lehman died in January.
This month, the company was sold to California-based Champion Trikes for an undisclosed sum.
Champion President Craig Arrojo said Lehman Trikes will now operate as a private company, and the Spearfish location will employ about 50 people when it's back in production.
Arrojo said he expects the first trike to roll off the assembly line in less than three months.
Lehman Trikes has a loyal following, according to Butler, who plans to produce 500 trikes in 2013 with his new system, which uses local metal and fiberglass-fabrication shops for some of the work.
"There are always struggles when you attempt to do something like this, but it's kind of rewarding when I can put together 15 kits at a time," Butler said.
There's a three-month waiting period for one popular trike conversion kit, because they're not made in large numbers.
Rob's Performance Motorsports said it has sold 20 percent more Spyders this year than it sold in all of 2011.
More baby boomers are switching to three-wheeled motorcycles because they are easier to control in stop-and-go traffic when balance becomes an issue. Women also are attracted to three-wheelers because they don't have to worry about balancing a heavy bike.
The Spyder has antilock brakes and other safety features. With two wheels in the front and one in the back, it's a stable platform for riding even on slick, wet pavement. In Wisconsin, that can extend the riding season in the spring and fall.
Some Spyders have a finger-operated electronic transmission for riders who don't want to use a clutch. Other amenities include heated handgrips and a heated seat.
The Spyder is popular with wheelchair users. It's amazing the number of trikes you see with wheelchairs strapped to them, Dorcey said.
More riders are customizing Spyders to give them a futuristic look, like something from the movie Batman, and still maintain the stability and comfort.
"If you are an extreme sport-bike rider who likes leaning a bike over and grinding the foot pegs into the pavement, you are probably not going to like the Spyder. But I can take corners almost as fast as some sport bikes," Dorcey said.
"It's like riding a snowmobile on the road at 70 miles per hour," he added.